Diners: American Classics
What could be finer than a community diner?
Photos by Scotty O’Daniel
Illustration by Chad Crowe
The initial heyday of the diner has passed us by – the iconic railcar-inspired buildings created and sold by the New Jersey-based Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company that came to define the diner in the U.S. ended production right before the country entered WWII. By the late 1960s, the number of active diners in the U.S. fell to just more than 5,000, a result of tremendous growth in fast food and drive-in restaurants. The number is small, given that we have more than 600,000 restaurants in the country now, but the diner remains inextricably woven into the textures of American pop culture, food and restaurant design.
What would Pulp Fiction be without the amazing opening scene in which Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer discuss the merits of robbing liquor stores, banks and restaurants while seated in a diner booth? Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is a painting we genuinely consider a snapshot of Americana, to say nothing of Norman Rockwell’s famous illustrations. On the more serious side, black and white photos of African Americans holding sit-ins at local diners are indelible images of the Civil Rights movement, including Clara Luper’s now famous sit-in at OKC’s Katz Drug Store lunch counter in 1958.
The diner has never been just about the food: It was a symbol of community, a place to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee before Starbucks and its ilk remade the caffeine landscape, a place to discuss news and local events, to meet the neighbors, to argue politics and religion, to study and, yes, to eat. Diners were typically 24-hour businesses, so breakfast, lunch and dinner were all on the menu, and it seems clear that they made the job of short order cook into an American institution, as well. Any good chef will tell you that a man or woman who can properly cook two dozen eggs to order at one time possesses a rare and wonderful skillset.
The 1960s brought cataclysmic change to America’s institutions, and diners were no exception – but while individual diners closed, the concepts lived on in spite of cultural shifts, both in the local establishments that refused to die and in fast food restaurant design. The menus behind the register at fast food restaurants? Diner inspired. The stools kids spin on at McDonald’s? Diner inspired. Seating choices that included stools, counters, tables and booths? Diners.
As for the countertops, they are the surest sign that you have entered a diner. There is no set, official definition of diner, no legal parameters such that a restaurateur may not use the term unless certain design specifications are met, but the diners that reshaped our cultural and culinary paradigms had counters where people could sit and eat. Absent a counter, you have a café. And there’s nothing wrong with cafés, but they are not diners.
When Shannon Roper and Aly Branstetter decided to open Sunnyside Diner in 2016, they insisted on a counter. Roper is matter-of-fact about it: “To me, a diner has a counter. You sit down. You order your coffee.”
Roper and Branstetter are only two restaurateurs who have reached back into the past to bring diners into the present. Roper said that he and his wife, Camille, look for diners when they travel – they love Gailey’s Breakfast Café in Springfield, Missouri.
“I love diner food,” Roper says. “I grew up in a small town, El Reno, so I grew up eating in diners. We got onion burgers at Johnnie’s Grill, which I think is the original onion burger joint.”
Sunnyside is one of the new diners to the area, and while Hatch and eventually Aurora will contribute to the breakfast and brunch scene, Sunnyside is a true diner. As such, Roper said they are moving toward the 24-hour model. They will add a dinner menu this year, and in keeping with the traditional theme, Chef Kiki Sabourin will serve up roast beef, hot turkey sandwiches, meatloaf and all the other dishes diners are supposed to serve. And there will be pie. Diners used to have pie cases on, or at least behind, the counter. Sabourin is already offering peanut pie, and Roper said they are trying to find a case now so that they can increase their pie offerings.
THE TASTE OF MEMORIES
If they are successful, walking into Sunnyside will feel like walking into a classic diner circa 1975. That’s not surprising, given that Roper’s other endeavors – S&B Burgers, for example – feature food from the 1970s and ’80s. These were the formative years for him, and that’s when we also form our definitions of comfort food.
Comfort might be some part of the explanation for why diners are trending nationwide. “We have lots of fancy restaurants with really unique food,” Roper says, “but maybe as millennials are aging into families and homes, they are looking for something different.”
Surely there is an element of nostalgia for some of us, some voice from our childhood or youth calling us back to gravy and hash browns and open-faced sandwiches, and away from truffles and exotic birds stuffed with hard-to-pronounce ingredients, to a time when cheese was cheese, and not an unending lexicon of words from other distant places.
This is not to say that those finer places do not possess merit; they clearly do. But when life becomes more complicated, simple choices are very helpful in uncluttering our existences: toast or biscuit, hash browns or breakfast potatoes, scrambled or fried, white or wheat? Perhaps more importantly, counter or booth? Someone should do a study of the psychology of that choice, because it may be a better way to understand humanity than any yet found. Nostalgia, though, is a tricky thing. We can romanticize what came before, and in a very real sense, our memories are full of details our brain created to fill out the storyline. All hash browns are not crispy out and tender in (as God intended them to be); some need to be pressed between napkins to eliminate the extra grease. Diners are irregular things because cooks are humans, and some owners care more than others. Overall, the diner has endured not because of the food, but for other, more intuitive reasons.
WHERE THE HEART EATS
As part of this feature, we asked food professionals and people from various walks of life what their favorite diner is … or in some cases, what it used to be, as many are now closed. Tunnel vision affects us all, and it was clear with one answer from three different people that this writer failed to notice the oldest diner in Oklahoma because it was not a diner per se.
“My favorite diner?” Chef Kurt Fleischfresser echoes. “The north side of Cattlemen’s.”
Cattlemen’s Steakhouse has been in continuous operation for more than 100 years, and the north side, the original part of the restaurant, is a diner.
Shaun Fiaccone, who owns Picasso Café, says Cattlemen’s “knows who they are after 100 years.”
“They are comfortable in their own skin, and it’s so refreshing. You feel it as soon as you walk in.”
Cattlemen’s operated 24 hours a day up until 1988 or 1989. During the 1960s and ’70s, the restaurant served hundreds of the 30 to 40 thousand workers who populated the large packing houses west of Cattlemen’s: Armour, Swift, Wilson and others. They started closing in the 1970s, and Cattlemen’s suffered a downturn. When operating partner David Egan and his business partner Dick Stubbs bought the place, they continued to staff the diner side, and now, the counter is manned seven days a week beginning at 6 a.m.
Egan said they let diners choose which side to sit on now. Up until 1990, the breakfast side closed for dinner, but eventually, demand made it necessary to re-open the counter for dinner, and many guests now choose the more casual side.
COFFEE AND CONVERSATION
Some of the appeal is the counter. While it’s possible to chat between booths, a counter is like a bar in that many people who sit at one don’t mind conversational stimulation from strangers who are neighbors at the bar.
Brady Sexton, who owns Scratch in Norman, said he loves diners because he can sit at the counter with his kids. “You can’t do that at a bar, but at the diner, it’s part of the fun. It’s also more fun and personal to sit closer to the staff.”
Regulars will tell you – and they are correct – that the best service in a restaurant is typically at the bar. This is simple spatial reasoning: A server or bartender is nearly always within sight or hearing, as opposed to a table or booth, where seeing your server every three to five minutes is standard. Counters in diners are much like bars in this respect, making them even more appealing to the non-introverts among us.
Before there was Starbucks, there was the counter, and so we come to the coffee. Does the coffee need to be good at a diner? Maybe. Visiting several diners over a few weeks convinced me that coffee is the most irregular feature of diners. The servers, the eggs, the mixed fruit jelly (only available in restaurants, folks), the kitschy décor, the glass sugar dispensers that eject pre-diabetic granules at a furious volume, the squeeze bottles of ketchup that always seemed to be topped with vinegar simply to frustrate you, the nondescript flatware, the paper napkins that somehow shred skin and absorb liquid – these are all the same, or at least similar. The coffee quality is all over the place, though. Sunnyside has excellent coffee. Not all diners do, though many of the customers don’t seem to care.
They didn’t come for the coffee. I heard first names called on dozens of occasions. “The usual, Bill?” “You take it black, right, Hank?” “How are the grandkids, Esther?” In “Cheers”-like fashion, the diner is a local joint; the local-est in some ways, because we allow people to see us regularly early in the morning, when we are not at our best. They know our names, hear our stories and ask after our loved ones, and they keep the coffee “warmed up.” If it tastes a bit like caffeinated sadness, we can live with that. The side of camaraderie is usually plenty to send customers off with a smile, and to keep the legacy of these restaurant institutions rolling along into the future.
► The Ones We Miss
Larry Dean Pickering | Artist, Designer, Gadabout
“Skyline Restaurant near Eastern and SE 15th. I used to pick my dad up when he came in off the road, and we would eat there at 3 a.m. The Skyline Chili was something else – damn good, greasy spoon chili.”
Ty Tyler | Owner/Partner, Tyler Media
“Our family ate at Dolly’s every Sunday morning when I was growing up. I miss their breakfast.”
Robert Ross | Founder and Co-owner, Interurban and Packard’s New American Kitchen
“Denco’s was a great diner during the day, and a college hangout at night. They were inside the Denver Transportation Company building, which is where the name came from. They closed in 1981, but everyone from Norman remembers the Denco Darlin’: elbow macaroni with chili and cheese.”
Steve Gill | Managing Editor, 405 Magazine
“I still miss the burgers, fries and shakes from Nichols Hills Drug; they were good enough to warrant wading through the ever-present horde of Bishop McGuinness students.”
► Fine Old Favorites
Scotty O’Daniel, art director, 405 Magazine
“Sherri’s Diner. The décor gives it a nice throwback feel, and the food’s good enough to make you think about becoming a regular. I’m already planning a return trip for biscuits and gravy. And pie.”
Kurt Fleischfresser, executive chef and partner, Western Concepts
“Cattlemen’s serves real food. It’s not processed, anti-oxidized, homogenized stuff. And I love the atmosphere.”
Shaun Fiaccone, restaurateur, Picasso Café
“Cattlemen’s. It embodies all the attributes of the perfect diner: delicious, unpretentious food in an equally unpretentious environment, familiar, well worn, effortlessly executed. (Full disclosure: it doesn’t hurt that my first job was at Applewoods.)”
David Henry, executive chef and operating partner, The Hutch on Avondale
“Good Gravy serves perfect hangover food, and the chicken-fried steak is the size of your face!”
Brady Sexton, owner, Scratch
“The Diner. The food is exactly what you expect, and it’s fast and friendly.”
Melissa Aust, executive chef, Stella Modern Italian Cuisine
“Ray’s Café over off May. I feel really young when I’m there, and the food is great. Also, Beverly’s.”
Kristi Miller Griffith, wine sales representative
“Juan del Fuego in Norman. It’s a diner with a Mexican twist. It’s everything that is great about both things.”
► Extra Helpings
This newer addition to Bethany is well worth a visit, with a soothing atmosphere and friendly staff – they’re how we learned that they bake their own cinnamon bread for the French Toast. We learned it’s completely delicious through independent research.
An Oklahoma success story that started in one OKC diner has swelled to 50+ locations. They serve a full menu seven days a week, and claim to go through 7.5 million eggs per year. Probably in part because the scrambles are so good.
It might be a lingering aspect of Route 66’s storied legacy, but Bethany has a bumper crop of long-lived diners. Jim’s is pushing 40, and they mean it when they say homestyle. We recommend the open-face roast beef sandwich, with homemade pie a la mode.
This might be the only place on the list where we wouldn’t be tempted to order breakfast. It’s probably quite good, but they’re a progenitor of a true culinary treasure: You can’t go to Sid’s and not get an onion burger with fries and a shake.
Far-flung across Oklahoma – there’s even one in western Arkansas – these retro-styled locales have a varied menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pro tip: The catfish is especially good.